In the heart of Tirana, an 85-metre-tall sculpture of Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg will soon overlook the public square that bears his name. Just a short distance away, the 140-metre Downtown One skyscraper approaches completion, bearing a pixelated map of Albania on its façades. Travel 1,300 kilometres north-west and four apartment buildings that spell the word “HOME” are emerging on the skyline of Mannheim, Germany. In Tilburg, the Netherlands, an initial masterplan proposal suggested three buildings in the shape of “013”, the city’s area code. Such projects are often controversial, especially among the architecture profession, who consider such a “pop-art” approach as unsophisticated (or worse). So what is behind all of these figurative sculptural projects in the portfolio of MVRDV?
One of the main reasons for these buildings is that they set the direction for a given neighbourhood, city, or country. Iconic buildings, figurative or not, have always acted as cultural markers – from the Eiffel Tower announcing France as a country of innovation and industry, to the Guggenheim Bilbao enabling the city’s dramatic shift from its post-industrial downturn into a renowned destination for culture and tourism. Even on a neighbourhood scale, notable architecture always plays a role in developing community character: the modernist library that proclaims an area’s progressive values and ambition; the ancient church whose continued presence reinforces a local love of tradition; the row of unique houses that delight in the individuality and expressiveness of the residents.
With their literal approach, MVRDV’s figurative buildings wear their meaning on their sleeve. Even when the figurative element is somewhat subtle (in Albania for example, both the head of Skanderbeg and the map of Albania are abstracted enough that they might take a few glances for passers-by to “read”) the statement these buildings make, and the direction they set, is clear. In Mannheim, the “HOME” buildings send a welcoming message, a particular consideration for a neighbourhood that plays a role in Germany’s refugee resettlement programme (this, along with the site’s history as a former US military camp, contributed to the decision to use the English word “home” as opposed to the German, “heim”). Meanwhile, the projects in Tirana and the proposal in Tilburg clearly reify a sense of identity and pride.
“These days, cities around the world increasingly look like each other – I always encourage them to resist this, to find their individual character and emphasise it”, says MVRDV founding partner Winy Maas. “To me, the Skanderbeg Building is an opportunity to do just that. It brings new meaning to existing elements of Albanian architecture. Tirana has the opportunity of a blank canvas for high-density structures. It can be progressive in that sense and build up character and a sense of place. As Albania begins its negotiations to join the EU, projects such as this one are part of the European Project – it stresses Albania’s history, character, and presence in a unified Europe of many states.”
Beyond this cultural impact, there is also an economic reason for such designs. In our market-oriented times, governments in many places have taken a step back from what was once an active involvement in determining the built character – the aesthetic character – of a city. These sculptures made of commercial real estate can act as a replacement, a way to build what was once seen as a public good worthy of public investment.
For residents, office workers, and other users of these projects, there is a further benefit that results from these buildings’ unconventional shapes. Modern residential developments often push for efficiency and standardisation above all else, resulting in apartments with few special qualities; conversely, sculptural buildings necessarily require non-standard interiors. In these buildings the interiors offer variety, the buildings are recognisable and the location of individual apartments is evident. Residents can easily locate their home to announce to friends and family: “I live there!”
Both approaches offer their own economic logic to the developer. Bland yet unobjectionable apartments in a nondescript building are the “safe” option that can be rented or sold to almost anybody. On the other hand, non-standard apartments may not be to everybody’s taste, or may entail added costs that not every resident would pay for – but when the building has a sculptural quality, some people will find it more attractive to select it as their home; it’s not just architects who love homes with character.
Another benefit of the unusual shapes is that they offer natural opportunities to add amenities and other benefits to occupants. In Mannheim, the apartment blocks come with semi-public terraces, rooftop sports facilities, and other unusual amenities enabled by the buildings’ letter-like forms. In Downtown One, the map of Albania forms a kind of vertical village of terraces, which allows interactions between neighbours that you would usually only expect in a more low-rise development. And in the Skanderbeg Building, the design’s sculptural qualities are only possible thanks to wide balconies that accommodate the detailed curves of the design.
“Residents in the Skanderbeg Building will never visit a neighbour and see the same layout they have in their own apartment. Every apartment is unique and has its own character, its own opportunities for highly individual interiors”, comments Maas. “And how often these days do you see apartment buildings with balconies all the way around the building on every floor? Generous outdoor spaces with panoramic views are sometimes hard to justify – unless they become necessary for the building’s sculptural effect, in which scenario a different business case develops.”
Ultimately, such outspoken buildings are a way to engage the broader public in the debate about their city and their culture, even if – or perhaps especially if – those people aren’t usually inclined to analyse layers of complex architectural meaning.
“We know the Skanderbeg Building will be heavily discussed, because everyone will have an opinion on it”, says MVRDV partner Jan Knikker. “It’s important to remember that the city of Tirana began its post-communist renaissance with a gigantic art project in which many derelict or badly maintained buildings were painted by artists. The two sculptures are, in a way, part of this tradition of larger artworks integrated with buildings. There is a fruitful critical debate happening in Tirana about architecture and the future of the city, so we can expect a social effect as a result of this design – a further effect on the fabric of the Albanian dialogue. The discussion will be about architecture, about what the city wants to become, and about Skanderbeg and his meaning to the Albanian people.”